Either you'll love the idea of a touch-screen LCD or you'll find the necessity of constantly visiting the menu system totally frustrating, if not absurd; it's enough to make anyone's relationship with the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-N1 a love/hate proposition. Snapshooters frustrated with the assortment of buttons and dials on other digital cameras may find the N1's touch screen easier to use; those accustomed to changing settings via dedicated buttons or a four-way controller may reject the whole idea. At its heart, the DSC-N1 remains a basic 8-megapixel, 3X-zoom ultracompact camera for everyday photography. It has an assortment of shooting options that will meet the needs of snapshooters, and it boasts a 3-inch LCD for displaying the 500 or so photos you can store in onboard albums. Slightly larger than most of its Cyber Shot siblings, the DSC-N1 is small enough to fit into most pockets. Measuring less than an inch thick (3.8 by 2.4 by 0.9 inches), the brushed-silver camera weighs 6.8 ounces with battery and Memory Stick Duo.
The front of the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-N1 doesn't look much different from that of a standard digital camera, but flip it over and you're faced with a huge, high-resolution 3-inch LCD surrounded by a slick, black frame--and not much else. Aside from the power button and the shutter release on top of the camera, the DSC-N1 has few external controls. To the right of the LCD, you'll find a small, square zoom lever and three icons representing video, capture, and playback modes, which you select with an adjacent sliding switch. Toward the bottom sit two small, black buttons with illuminated icons: one accesses the menu, and the other scrolls through display options. Although the external controls are minimal, the lack of illumination behind the transparent mode icons makes it a little difficult to initially identify them.
In a bold move, Sony has placed all the controls in the menu system, where they're accessible only via the touch screen. The simplicity of using the touch screen may appeal to those who have trouble navigating the typical digital camera's array of external buttons and menus. Using the supplied stylus--or even your finger--to press one of the icons or hit the onscreen Menu bar is the easy part. Instead of quickly changing the flash mode or switching to macro via a four-way controller or a dedicated button, you have to press a button, then scroll through the menu. The pictograms for each category may confuse users unfamiliar with the standard digital-camera icons, forcing them to resort to trial and error (or the manual). Submenu options are more clearly identified with text--Flash/Flash Off, for example--but you still must wade through lists of items to get to the appropriate one. And while some functions are grouped together logically, others are not. For example, resolution (file size) is on the opening menu screen, but you have to drill down a level or two to change the quality (compression) setting. The system's only saving grace is that it remembers where in the menu tree your last setting was.
In addition, if you misplace the stylus or find it more convenient to use your fingers, the LCD will get smudged. The smudging wasn't as bad as we imagined, but you will need to clean the LCD frequently.
Although the stylus comes bundled with the camera, you'll need to budget for a Memory Stick Duo (the camera comes with only 26MB of internal memory); pick up the more expensive Duo Pro if you want to record movies in high resolution. The camera doesn't accept accessory lenses, but you can pick up a slave flash or a Cyber Shot Station for charging the camera, transferring photos, and viewing them on TV. There's even a wireless remote for TV viewing and PictBridge printing. With few exceptions, the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-N1 offers nothing extraordinary in the way of features but delivers enough options to provide moderate control over photo quality. It has a manual-exposure mode with a limited selection of f-stops but no aperture- or shutter-priority modes.
The camera also offers program and auto modes as well as eight scene modes, including Twilight, Candle, and Landscape. Other features control ISO sensitivity, white balance (though there's no manual white-balance setting), metering, sharpness, contrast, saturation, image size, and resolution. Multi, center, and spot autofocus are also available, with a very cool twist: in spot AF, you can move the focus point simply by touching the screen.
Perhaps the most attention-getting feature, after the touch screen, is the camera's photo-album function. Equipped with 26MB of internal memory, the DSC-N1 saves VGA-size files of each picture you take and automatically organizes the images by date for quick access later. The thumbnails remain saved in the camera even when you transfer the original images or remove the Memory Stick. You can delete the thumbnails if you want to, though. With its 3-inch LCD and album functionality, the N1 doubles as a photo viewer. In addition to playing back images by date, you can create slide shows complete with fancy transitions and music. You don't get to choose the transitions, but you can choose the music from several onboard options; alternately, you can download music from your PC. One feature we particularly liked in playback was the ability to jump back with one touch to the full-size image after zooming in to see details.
The DSC-N1 also has a paint/draw function that allows you to directly annotate images. It's fun, and you can save a low-resolution copy, but the average photographer will probably not use this feature much. More likely, realtors, insurance adjusters, and other professionals will find it more useful.
Sony includes several movie options, including a 640x480, 30fps mode, which delivers relatively high-quality videos. The Sony Cyber Shot DSC-N1 is fairly speedy for its class, with a power-on-to-first-shot time of about 1.6 seconds. There was little shutter lag, and given decent light, the autofocus pounced quickly on its subjects. Low-light autofocus, although impressive in our formal tests, was not as consistently speedy in real life. The DSC-N1 moved quickly from one shot to another, taking 2.1 seconds with flash. Continuous shooting fell on the slow side, however; we were able to capture only 4 high-resolution or 15 low-resolution shots at 1.2 frames per second.
The LCD provided good visibility under most circumstances, though in low light the refresh rate became a little sluggish and the display somewhat grainy. Also, some angles of bright sunlight made it difficult to read the menu, and the monitor darkened when we stopped down the exposure, sometimes making it difficult--if not impossible--to view our composition.
The 38mm-to-114mm (35mm equivalent) zoom lens moved quietly and slowly, allowing efficient and accurate focal-length adjustments. The camera's flash generally delivered even coverage. Though it rarely overexposed images, its intensity is adjustable up or down one step.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Shutter lag (typical)||Time to first shot||Typical shot-to-shot time|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Auto white balance failed miserably under mixed lighting conditions indoors, delivering extraordinarily yellow images. The camera lacks custom white balance, so you'll need to choose one of the presets if you're shooting inside. In well-lit outdoor settings, however, the auto white balance performed admirably.
The levels of image sharpness and detail capture were mixed. Some of our test shots were crisply focused enough that we wouldn't hesitate to make large prints from them. We relegated others to the keep-'em-small folder because of their slight softness and lack of fine detail.
We noticed very little purple fringing in our standard trees-against-the sky image tests, but a bluish-purple outline appeared around a white logo on a red train car.
The DSC-N1 kept noise levels fairly well in check. Some images that we shot at ISO 800 exhibited very low grain and were surprisingly usable--as long as we kept shadow areas to a minimum.